When Good Feedback Intentions Backfire

I received a note from someone who was bothered by a recent group meeting with his manager. The manager had used the forum to deliver some feedback critical of performance. The way it was delivered left people scratching their heads.

The feedback was presented in terms of the plural pronoun, We as in, “We did a poor job here, and we need to improve.” While I will defend the manager’s right to provide individual and multi-person, team feedback, these types of blanket statements—often intended for just one party or focused on one incident—leave people confused and stressed. Just as there’s a structure to quality one-on-one feedback discussions, the same goes for multi-person feedback.

Following the session, my note writer indicated a general confusion on the part of participants. Several individuals were stressed because they perceived the feedback was aimed at them. Several others were annoyed because they felt unjustly criticized. Regardless of the manager’s positive intent in the above situation, the feedback failed. Instead, here are some ideas this manager can apply to get group feedback right in the future.

4 Tips on Where and How to Use Multi-Person Feedback

1. Multi-person Feedback is Not a Substitute for a Challenging Conversation

Yes, there’s safety in numbers, and giving general feedback to a group feels more comfortable than facing down that difficult character in a challenging conversation. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.

Untargeted, vague feedback creates distress for the group leaving some feeling guilty and fearful, and others just annoyed. Worst of all, the watered-down feedback likely bounces off the intended target with no effect. There is no substitute for a well-structured one-on-one feedback discussion when it is merited.

2. Do You Have a Group or a Team? It Matters When It Comes to Feedback!

Effective coaching is a crucial contributor to team performance and often missing according to the late J. Richard Hackman, one of the foremost researchers of team development. However, a team aligned around a clear and compelling purpose is different than the functional groups most of us are a part of at work.

The value of team feedback is amplified when individuals come together to pursue a common objective—for example, delivering a strategic project. Yet, when individuals are organized as a loose confederation of contributors under a functional umbrella, multi-person feedback is confusing or stress-producing as evidenced in the opening example.

For groups, focus on one-on-one coaching and feedback. When the initiative demands a teaming approach, both individual and multi-person feedback are essential.

3. Focus Multi-Person Feedback on Critical Processes, not Interpersonal Squabbles

Quality feedback is always timely, specific, behavioral, and connected to performance, regardless of whether it is directed at individuals or a team. However, the focus of multi-person feedback is best directed at the processes essential for high performance, including problem-solving, decision-making, and communication. Continuous improvement in these areas is mission-critical for teams, and coaching and feedback accelerate progress.

For the interpersonal squabbles that break out from time-to-time, skip the manager’s tactic of chastising the entire group. Interpersonal challenges are best handled in smaller settings with the involved individuals.

4. Quality Multi-Person Feedback Promotes Discussion that Leads to Actions

One of several mistakes made by the manager in the opening example was his use of mandate without citing examples or promoting discussion that led to positive actions. “We need to” is a weak statement of “commander’s intent” but a horrible feedback opener. In that setting, no examples were provided, and there was no discussion on the “How” of strengthening performance.

Too often, managers perceive their job is complete when they surface the performance issue and dictate a “make it so” resolution. The real value—the real meat of feedback for performance improvement comes from the discussion and subsequent action development. Don’t bypass this critical phase.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Multi-person feedback is a tricky issue. Don’t let it trip you up and then stress the people around you. Teams thrive on coaching and feedback for key processes. An active feedback culture in team settings is essential for high-performance. In almost every other situation, feedback is best served in a tailored fashion to individuals.

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